Democratic Republic of Congo

At Yolé! Africa, young people from multiple ethnic groups work together to create art and learn job skills. In a country where ethnic tensions often result in violence, the center is an unusual environment where people collaborate to promote peace.

GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — It’s Saturday, the day when many young people go out to have fun. Increasingly, they’re going to one place: Yolé! Africa, an arts and culture center.

Inside its walls, the center feels like a different world.

On a concrete slab, young men dance and sweat in the afternoon sun. Drums and guitars line the walls inside a wooden bungalow. An empty stage awaits dancers.

Here, youth exist without tribal segregation or violence. They dance here without fear or mistrust. Participants say that collegiality is rare in this country, where conflict penetrates nearly every aspect of life.

“Peace is not just a theory,” says Ganza Buroko, project coordinator at Yolé! Africa. “Peace is a way of life here. We can sing, write and dance for peace.”

Yolé! Africa enrolls local youth in music and dance classes and cultural exchange courses for young people from DRC and neighboring countries, wherein they collaborate on artistic projects. Each student pays $2 to register and $1 per month in membership fees. Last year, more than 3,000 people enrolled in courses, Buroko says. Some of these classes cultivate skills that translate into jobs.

Most people who work at the center are volunteers.

Buroko says the arts are an entry point into peace, but the true goal of Yolé! Africa, which was founded 16 years ago, is to combat youth unemployment.

“There is a great need for us to learn to live together in peace, but peace will remain a distant dream for the youth if they continue to languish in unemployment,” he says.

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Young people who gather at Yolé! Africa showcase their talents. Their rehearsals prepare them for performances at cultural festivals and other events.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperence, GPJ DRC

Unemployment is an ongoing challenge here. Between 2009 and 2012, the average unemployment rate was 53 percent, according to the Banque Centrale du Congo. But the problem is especially dire among youth, in part because DRC is such a young country. Sixty percent of the country is under the age of 25, and about 12 percent of the 15- to 24-year-old labor force are unemployed, according to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators.

In the North Kivu province, where dozens of rebel groups and armed militias fight to control natural resources and battle over long-standing tensions, unemployed young people often enlist just to earn some money.

Eighty percent of all documented violations against children in 2015 concerned the recruitment of children in armed groups, says Lavinia Lommi, an officer in the Child Protection Section of MONUSCO, the United Nations stabilization mission for DRC.

Olivier Bizimana, 30, has been coming to Yolé! Africa since it opened. He says he’s developed dancing and other artistic talents.

But Yolé! Africa is more than an entertainment center, Bizimana says.

“It’s an ideal place to develop and learn how to live together without any form of segregation or assault,” he says.

In addition to offering courses, Yolé! Africa uses a technique called baraza, a Swahili word meaning “assembly” or “council,” which brings groups together for facilitated discussion on a particular topic. Here, Buroko says, they talk directly with young people about cultural, political and economic issues that affect their lives.

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At Yolé! Africa, young people aren’t segregated by ethnic group. That’s unusual in DRC, where ethnic-based tensions often escalate into violence. Here, young people discuss music they plan to produce together.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperence, GPJ DRC

“Young people who come to this center learn various concepts, including critical thinking about challenging events,” Buroko says, referring to the ongoing conflict in the nation and social issues that include poverty and unemployment. “This helps them think before reacting and not to accept as true everything that comes into their ears, because often rumors drag people into quarreling.”

Baraza sessions, held twice each month, draw an average of 30 to 45 youth, he says.

The search for peace is constant here, says Yedidia Katende, 26, who works as a sound producer and photo editor at Yolé! Africa. He considers himself an ambassador for peace in DRC.

“I’ve been at Yolé! Africa for two years now,” he says. “To me, the center is my family, and I treat fellow young people as siblings. We are all one.”

Vincent Mwamba Mishonya, the acting head of the government arts and culture division in DRC’s North Kivu province, says the local government shares the mission of Yolé! Africa, which is to promote peace through cultural activities and art.

“Culture plays an important role in the promotion of peace and peace education among youth,” he says. “Yolé! Africa is already contributing to the promotion of peace.”

At Yolé! Africa, youths put aside their differences because art is of more interest to them, Buroko says.

“Our job is to promote peace through education of Congolese youth,” Buroko says. “They learn from one another without prejudices, and only developing their talents is of far greater importance to them for a better future.”

And the skills people are learning at the center translate into jobs.

Salim Mulabani learned filmmaking at Yolé! Africa, and now he’s a professional cameraman and filmmaker.

“I feel proud to be who I am today, and this center has provided me with the means to make my dreams come true,” he says. “I now see a brighter future, and I have full confidence that one day I will write a wonderful story about my country, a story not about killings, but about lasting peace.”

Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated this article from French.